I must admit it: (in my past life) I have taken cheese platters to gatherings. I patted myself on the back while I created a platter that involved cutting cheddar and mozzarella into perfect bite-sized cubes, all surrounded by crackers.
After a session conducted by certified Chef Wolfgang Stampe the self-proclaimed “Cheese Head” at Christmas in November hosted by Jasper Park Lodge, I feel that I have graduated from Cheddar and Mozzarella to the Borgonzolas and the Bries of the cheese world.
Stampe introduced me to a world of Canadian artisan cheeses, as well as, some tricks to jazz up the cheese plate that will stand heads above my previous cheese cubes.
Coast to coast, Canada produces over 400 cheeses. Most of the gourmet cheeses are produced by small-scale cheese makers who are busy perfecting artisanal cheeses. These are handcrafted in small production facilities, and aged carefully and sold at the height of their maturity. Quebec, because of their strong European roots, leads the way, but all the dairy regions across Canada have caught on.
When tasting cheese you don’t simply shove, chew and swallow. Like wine, fine cheese is meant to be savoured and tasted with your senses. “If you don’t look and smell the product, you can’t get the maximum value, “ says Stampe.
When describing the smell of cheese, “dirty sock” “mouldy” and “ farm yard” are all legitimate words to describe fine Canadian cheeses. Once you finally place the cheese into your mouth, simply close your mouth and let it sit on your tongue before chewing. “This will bring the cheese to body temperature and melt on your tongue giving it a fondue feeling and releasing the flavours to your taste buds, “ explains Wolfe.
During our cheese tasting session, no one was in agreement when it came to describing the taste. “That is because,” explains Stampe, “ each person will taste the cheese differently because everyone has different flora in their mouth.”
To demystify the world of Canada’s 400 cheeses, Wolfe divided the cheeses into four categories: bloomy rind (soft), washed rind (semisoft), firm and hard, and Blue.
Soft cheeses, like Brie, are generally creamy, somewhat of a runny texture and are aged no longer than a few months. Most have edible bloomy rind which adds a stronger dimension of flavour.
Washed rind, semisoft cheeses are those which the inside texture of the cheese are soft but not runny. A good example of this cheese is the Oka, it’s a washed-rind cheese, soaked in liquids such as wine, beer, whiskey or salt water. This is a century-old cheese which originated in Quebec that is described as pungent, and very strong flavoured.
Firm and hard cheeses are aged for long periods to remove much of the moisture or are made from cooked and pressed curds. The best example of this cheese is the ‘Grizzly” aged Gouda from Sylvan Star — a company right at our door steps by Sylvan Lake. It’s is one of Stampe’s favourites. “He (John Schalkwyk) uses only milk from his dairy cows, and his product is always consistent.” (Learn more about Sylvan Star in my Masala-mix blog this week.)
Cheeses grouped in the Blue category are those that have been injected with moulds, creating tasty blue striations. This probably is the most pungent tasting cheese. Blue Jay from Ontario is a “giant flavour bomb” and requires courage or heart and palate to truly enjoy it. However, “Borgonzola a milder blue cheese was created to get people interested in blue cheese”, explains Stampe.
When choosing cheese consider the “one bourbon, one scotch and one beer” approach to cheese plates. In other words, using three cheeses (three varieties is the minimum amount used in a plate) that are very different, progressing from the very mild to the more pronounced.
Have fun. Ask a cheesemonger for advice, try tastes of what they recommend. “Don’t be shy to sample before making a decision, “ advises Stampe. Try something new on every plate along with established old favourites.
I had always thought that crackers were the most obvious garnish for a cheese plate. Stampe prefers breads. “The salt from crackers tends to compete with the cheeses. “Sliced crusty baguette or a raisin bread, nutty breads, sunflower seed loaf, sourdough bread or French baguette, bread with herbs — any kind of bread goes well with cheese. As long as the taste does not overwhelm the cheese.”
Other palate pleasing garnishes include pickles, fruits, nuts, mango chutney and maple syrup. Homemade green tomato ketchup or pickles go great with strong-flavoured cheese. Maple syrup is a treat with cheese that may, at first glance, seem quite odd. It works well for the same reason that a dessert wine is the perfect partner for a bold and full bodied blue; the contrast and balance of the duo take both to a whole new level. Include some fresh fruit to add colour, as well as to cleanse the palate.
You can’t go wrong with dried fruit like figs, prunes and cranberry which go splendidly with just about all cheeses. Fresh walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts are also delightful.
When assembling your plate make sure there is plenty of room between your cheese. Put your condiments in between. This not only introduce different colour and texture but also keeps the flavours of the cheese separate. Provide a different knife for each cheese on the plate. You don’t want the soft Brie rubbing into the blue cheese. Also, write the name of the cheese on a little piece of paper, tape it to a toothpick and poke into the cheese. This way, guests will know what cheese they are trying.
And if you don’t want to do a cheese platter but still entertain with cheese, you may consider cheese kebabs. Intertwine different cheeses with fruit. It is like a whole menu on a stick!
The message I came back with from my session with Stampe is — good gatherings have cheese platters amongst the offerings, but great gatherings offer more than just cubed orange cheddar and crackers.
Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on bprda.wpengine.com.